June 14, 2007
When it was announced that the very American actress Renee Zellweger was to play the beloved British literary heroine Bridget Jones, fans were in an uproar. How dare an American play such a quintessential British character?! However, she silenced all of her critics with an excellent performance. Surprisingly, when it was announced that she would be playing famous children’s author and illustrator Beatrix Potter, the Brits cried foul again. Once again, she turns in another fine performance.
Zellweger plays Potter as an idealistic dreamer in the same vein as the cinematic incarnation of J.M. Barrie in Finding Neverland (2004). The film chronicles the pursuit to publish her children’s book, The Tales of Peter Rabbit and how it was very difficult for a single woman to get her work noticed in the early 1900s. The film goes back in time to show how, at an early age, Potter loved to draw realistic pictures of rabbits and tell her brother stories. We see the loving household she grew up in, raised by parents who nurtured her creative tendencies, but who had no friends save that of the characters she created in her mind and on the page. Potter had a powerful imagination that included, in one scene, seeing her parents leaving the house in a carriage driven by large, animated rabbits.
Director Chris Noonan subtly introduces the film’s more fantastical elements (aka Potter’s imagination) with one of her drawings showing the briefest signs of life before showing a larger flight of fancy a few minutes later – the aforementioned carriage-driven rabbits. These animated sequences feature characters from her books and also help convey her unique worldview.
Publisher Norman Warne (McGregor) is put in charge of publishing Potter’s book because his family, who runs the business, doesn’t consider her work significant and figures that his inexperience (this is his first book) will cause it to quickly and quietly disappear. However, he shares her enthusiasm and they work together to make her book affordable while still adhering to her vision. They both have something to prove – that he has the skills of a proper publisher and that she is a talented storyteller with a distinctive vision. He believes in her when no one else does. Working closely with Norman, Potter falls in love with him and they soon decide to get married but her family does not approve. They threaten to disinherit her because they fear she is rushing into something she may later regret.
Noonan utilizes a warm colour scheme and really shows off the architecture popular at the time as well as the stunningly beautiful English countryside. This is crucial as nature was a primary influence on Potter’s work while she felt stifled by city life and those scenes are meant to look drab and restrictive in comparison.
Renee Zellweger is quite good as Beatrix Potter, affecting a more than credible accent and embodying her character’s youthful energy and optimism even in the face of tragedy and heartbreak because she is a passionate individual. Her co-star, Ewan McGregor is excellent as always and they continue the natural chemistry demonstrated in their first cinematic pairing, Down with Love (2003). Sadly, the film isn’t quite up to their level as, at times, it fails to engage the viewer. I really wanted to like this film, especially with the comparisons to Finding Neverland, but felt my interest waning as the film dragged on and I had trouble staying awake throughout. An admirable effort that doesn’t quite connect.
There is an audio commentary by director Chris Noonan. He points out that it was a project in development for many years, including, at one point, as a musical. When he signed on, Cate Blanchett was going to play Potter. They shot the film in London and he mentions how he was amazed that certain sections of the city still resembled the 1900s. Noonan talks about Potter’s life and how she was a modern woman in a restrictive society.
“The Tale of Peter Rabbit and Beatrix Potter” is a featurette that provides factual information about the woman’s life and career, examining where she grew up and how that, and her parents, shaped her worldview. This is a good portrait of a fascinating person.
“The Making of a Real-Life Fairy Tale” is your standard making of/promotional featurette. Noonan says that the film tries to get into Potter’s psyche while Zellweger speaks passionately about the author. Noonan points out that the actress maintained her British accent even in-between takes. Everyone speaks highly of each other as is expected in this kind of extra.
Also included is a music video for “When You Taught Me How to Dance” by Katie Melua that features footage of her recording and performing the song mixed with clips from the movie.
Finally, there is a theatrical trailer.